Joan McAlpine, who has been bombarbed with abuse on social media since her Holyrood committee rejected the idea of changing the sex question in the next census to include a third option of non-binary, said that she would not be “bullied” by threats and abusive language.
McAlpine chairs the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs committee which is scrutinising the legislation for the next census which will take place in 2021. After consultation, the committee agreed that the census sex question should remain a binary one, and a voluntary question on gender identification introduced for people who identify as trans and non-binary.
However, her public voicing of concerns around the consultation done by the National Records of Scotland, which proposed to change the sex question, and her remarks on the importance of defining sex as male or female to ensure legal protections for women were not diluted, have resulted in her being branded “trash”, a “transphobe” and threatened with de-selection by some SNP members.
But as well as receiving abuse, her Twitter thread on sex and the census has been endorsed by more than 2,000 people and shared 800 times. Many women have thanked her for talking about the issue, proving she says, that many are afraid to do so, in case they are branded as bigoted. Indeed, one of her SNP colleagues, Ruth Maguire MSP, was also heavily criticised after she thanked McAlpine for talking about a conflation of sex and gender.
“Clearly people are being bullied,” said McAlpine. “They try to shut you up by labelling you and othering you, by using extremist language.
“This isn’t just about trans people’s rights, they have the same human rights as everyone else and extra protections in the Equality Act and hate legislation, and that’s quite right. This is about women’s rights and how the changes being pushed for impact women.”
McAlpine admits she was surprised at the “hostility” which came her way after the committee made its decision on the census questions. “We agreed that it [the census] should ask questions about transgender people for the first time. So I think from the point of view of trans people, that was progressive, and it allows services to be provided for them.
“The organisations representing the trans community will be closely involved in determining what the question will be. So it was surprising that having done that, we experienced a certain amount of hostility because we refused to change the sex question.
“If you have an identity question it allows trans people to express themselves which is good. But sex is still completely different to identification.”
That hostility intensified however, when the MSP for South Scotland took her views on to social media. She says she felt compelled to speak out after discovering that the National Records of Scotland had been asked by trans campaigners to change the sex question, and had agreed to do so with no consultation.
“There has been a binary sex question asked in the census since 1801 and what was extraordinary about that was NRS agreed to change it without taking information from anyone else,” she says. “It changes the definition of sex from a biological definition to one of identification.
“Sex is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act and statisticians and data users who came forward to give evidence made the point that sex is important to record to plan health services and to understand how discrimination against women takes place.”
Certainly that was the argument put by Professor Susan McVie, a member of the Board of Official Statistics Scotland, and Lucy Hunter Blackman, a policy analyst and former senior civil servant in the Scottish Government. Hunter Blackman has joined forces with Dr Kath Murray, a research associate at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research and Lisa Mackenzie, an independent policy analyst and former UK government civil servant, to create a new policy analysis collective, with a specific focus on sex-based data.
Their work on Equality Impact assessments carried out by local authorities and other organisations to test the effect of policies on people with protected characteristics has shown that some authorities “muddle up” sex and gender – if assessments are done at all.
The women are also concerned about the atmosphere surrounding the issue. Hunter Blackman says: “If lawmakers feel constrained about asking questions or raising points they think matter, on any topic, it greatly increases the risk of making bad law.”
McAlpine believes there has been “policy capture” by equality organisations – which receive hundreds of thousands in funding from the Scottish Government. “The NRS hardly looked at sex as a protected characteristic – it shows there’s an element of policy capture, there’s a belief that these questions only affect a small number of transgender campaigners when in fact they affect everyone. You’ve got to remember that the groups advising for this change get significant amounts of government funding. You can see the circularity.
“What’s interesting is that those who didn’t agree with our conclusions, the groups who have the money and who were initially the only ones consulted, were extremely angry that their privileged position was challenged. They have come back and said we should not have taken evidence from some of the women’s groups and gender critical feminists who we did take evidence from. That strikes me as extraordinarily undemocratic.”
McAlpine admits that she has also become concerned about the idea of self-ID being enough for a person to change their sex and affecting statistics. “You need to have accurate data to protect women – that’s where my interest is focused. Extremely concerning is Humza [Yousaf, the Justice Secretary] telling us that it’s happening in the recording of crime. That people can self declare their sex if they’re charged with a crime and there are no checks, no proof is required and no-one needs to provide a gender certificate.”
Mostly though, she says, she’s concerned about vulnerable, disabled and elderly women. “We know there will be Muslim women, for example, who may stop using certain services if they think there’s going to be male-bodied people there. Or a woman with a disability who requires intimate personal care – the law protects your right to privacy and dignity, you’ve a right as a woman to say ‘I don’t want a man, a male-bodied person, doing that intimate care’.
“I’ve been called a transphobe just because I’ve raised reasonable issues, of asking is it right that someone who in every respect is male be treated as female in every respect no matter how they’ve behaved? Most reasonable people will say that’s not acceptable and that’s why I’m happy to speak out.
“The support I have received vastly outweighs any attacks on me. I’ve received fantastic cards and emails from women all over the UK.”
“It’s outrageous to undermine what we’re saying in this way.”
Both the Equality Network and one of its umbrella groups, the Scottish Trans Alliance, gave evidence to the committee looking at the census. They too are concerned at the heated debate which rages on Twitter in particular – and have publicly stated that Scottish political debate can and should be conducted without personal abuse, harassment, intimidation, or threats of violence.
They also say that the main aim in asking for the sex question to include a non-binary option is to improve the data that is collected.
James Morton of the STA says: “The sex question has been answered by trans people as their lived sex for at least the last two censuses. To change it now to make it solely about biological sex would be rolling that back. We want a non-binary option to be added because not everyone identifies as male or female, and in the past, they have either ticked both boxes or none. Having a separate question would improve the data. As will the voluntary question on trans status, which would allow statisticians to know how many people consider themselves to be trans.
“We have to trust the civil servants and statisticians and give them credit they will look at all of this in detail and come up with solutions that uphold human rights and dignity and have no unintended consequences.”
Tim Hopkins of the Equality Network takes issue with the idea that equality groups have too much influence with government. “We take our views from the LGBTi community across Scotland, whom we represent, and if that means disagreeing with government then that’s what we will do. And if the government attached any strings to its funding then we would
“I think it’s outrageous that Joan McAlpine is trying to undermine the validity of what we’re saying in this way.
“Everyone has a right to be heard, I’d suggest that we’re not hearing enough from trans people, who make up just 0.6 per cent of the population.”